When I switched on the wifi on my computer, it didn’t find a single network in the centre of Vellore, a middle-sized town in the hot and dusty plains of Tamil Nadu. Some things in South India do not change, it seems. Women with turmeric-yellow palms and faces, cows roaming the street, men urinating on the the pavement, the scent of sewage and spicy sambar, the leaning piles of paper everywhere in the Ideal Police Station. (And even if new things do arrive, the old stay too.)
I had arrived on a bus with Greg Simmons‘ horde of audio engineers on their annual field recording trip (which, as has become tradition, included an oto.3 recording session). They carried on to Goa, I figured Vellore might be a nice little place to visit, after bypassing it on my motorcycle journey two years ago. We had lunch and Greg’s army boarded their next bus while I walked in the direction of what I thought might be the centre. To my surprise, all hotels were full. Because of the harvest festival pongal, or was it my white face? Contemplating alternatives involving more long-distance bus rides, I stopped checking every hotel, just walked into a few that seemed friendlier. In one of those a solemn white haired man was willing to let me a room provided I’d get a stamp of approval from the police station – so it had been my foreignness indeed. Unfortunately, when I found the place the responsible officer had left for the day. No problem sir, I was assured before I was simply left alone, and indeed, after some convincing and leaving an extra deposit in the form of a large sum of money and my passport, I could move into my room.
My dinner was this trip’s first rava masala dosa, crispy and tasty. Quickly done too, in one of those dimly TL-lit halls, concrete floor and metal crockery banging through the reverb. I had a heavy piece of triple chocolate cake to look forward to whilst battling the mosquitos in my room and going through the results of the recording session, so went looking for some accompanying tea. But alas, it was too late, No tea anywhere, including the stall of the angel-faced chaiwallah next door – matching smile, hairy ork-ears provding counterpoint.
Had a good tea the next day though, at the barbershop, between shave and eyebrow-trim. The barber had sour breath and divided his attention between running a razor over my cheeks and a televised pongal cow ceremony. Water buffalo (one at a time) were set free into a crowd and excited men jumped at them and held on to their humps as long as they could. Anyone who made it for more than two seconds punched the air triumphantly while the cow, unbothered now, disappeared around the corner. The barber and his friends got very excited. The spectacle reminded me of what I’ve heard of Pamplona in Spain – raging bulls chasing the crowds in narrow streets. The much more sedate water buffalo featured in the Indian version seems merely scared and just wants to get away. No one got hurt. There seemed to be different teams in different uniforms, and mysterious people outside the camera frame kept throwing gifts down from a higher platform. The audience, apart from a few smiling tourists, was all male.
Freshly shaved, I took an autorickshaw to the bus station – and found a large, beautifully fortified temple complex just behind the Ideal Police Station, including guards in matching style. Would have been nice to check out. Next time. After this reacquaintance with South India and a nice stop on my way to a few days of relaxation in Bangalore, I got settled in Madras – make new friends at Hotel Broadlands, practice Indian pharans and American rudiments, unpack my ukulele, and enjoy bookshops and espresso at the Express Avenue Mall. I am now ready for our shows with oto.3, starting tonight, at Counterculture in Whitefield, Bangalore. On to the soundcheck now.
Spent the best part of my last night in Madras stuffing my life into the few (…) bags I can take on the bike – I always end up packing at night, which is why I prefer to leave in the morning: just in case, it gives you the extra hours that were originally set aside for sleeping. (Of course having to catch a train or plane is a better incentive to get things done than having to ride a bike, so I left in the late afternoon after all, just in time for sunset coffee on Elliot’s Beach. Read more about the beginning of my drumbiker journey to northwest Europe (started, of course, by going straight south) in bye bye broadlands.)
After the 4 or 5,000 kilometres it took me to get from Katmandu to Madras, the counter is now at 31108. Let’s see where it’ll be when I pull onto the driveway of my little Amsterdam railroad house.
I never made it to the beach – in Mamallapuram I’d told myself I’d go in Auroville, but once I arrived the bike’s needs seemed to be more important than my beach boy aspirations and I ended up in a mechanic’s sidewalk-garage for the better part of the afternoon. He charged me the princely sum of 100 Indian rupees to play with the idle screw on the carburettor a little, telling me the contact breaker points were ok. While I’m still not sure of the latter, the bike does run better now. It’s funny, I’ll happily tear apart a gearbox and put it back together perfectly, but the precision work of tuning the bike by turning a few screws a couple of degrees is fully over my head. I guess I’ll learn – I guess I’ll have to – but for now I was happy watching the mechanic’s practiced fingers do the job, meanwhile admiring the bike he was restoring and chatting to a Frenchman who’d been in Pondy for 20 years and owned four Taurus Enfields, the diesel model. An amazing 6 horsepower bike – the upside is it runs forever on a drop of decommissioned cooking oil.
After Pondicherry, the ECR, the East Coast Road, was less busy and even more pleasant. Around a month before I left, a cyclone had hit the Indian east coast. We’d felt it in Madras, and in Auroville and Pondy the effects had been huge (Auroville got its electricity back just a few days ago) but around Cuddalore, the storm’s centre 30 kilometres south of Pondy, the wreckage was unbelievable. It’ll be a long time before there are grown trees again in that region.
In Chidambaram, I had a refreshingly touristic stop: after tea and a bottle of water, I visited the Thillai Nataraja Temple, leaving the bike with all its luggage in the care of the proprietor of the teastall.
After leisurely exploring the temple, which is dedicated to Shiva as the cosmic dancer Nataraja, whose dance created the universe, I was very happy to wave at all the tourists filing into their buses, climbing on my bike, and leaving on my own, with no one telling me what to do where and when. Just before Thanjavur I stopped for a delicious South Indian pure-vegetarian meals (doesn’t matter if you order one or one hundred, it’s always “meals”) and afterwards walked over to a tea lady a few hundred metres down the road. She used a beautiful contraption involving a brass urn and glowing coals but would let me take photographs.
My original plan had been to ride along the coast to India’s southernmost tip, Kanyakumari, and go to Trivandrum and further up in Kerala to play with musicians there. However, with gigs in Bangalore and Madras continuing into the middle of the month, time was running out – and I didn’t find musicians in Kerala yet either. I need a producer! (And a cameraperson, pr hero, accountant, fundraiser, mechanic, and sound technician.) Then Ranvir Shah told me about the Sacred Music Festival, organised by his Prakriti Foundation in Thiruvaiyaru every spring, and invited me to come along and play there. Followed three days of concerts and being shown around the temples and countryside of the area, including a great lunch (oh I’ll miss South Indian food) at a restored traditional house, now open for tourists.
On the second night of the festival, I had to honour of playing with nadaswaram artist Mylai S Mohanraj and his group of nadaswaram and tavil players. Unprepared and without much discussion (music being the only language we both spoke), I added my grooves to their powerful temple songs. Newspaper The Hindu noticed.
The next morning, after a dawn visit to the Brihadeeswarar Temple in Thanjavur, I rode on – direction northwest, from now on. Redneck in stead of sun in the face.
The first official episode of Elephant Songs played in Bangalore for two weekends in February. We kicked off at the famous B-Flat in Indiranagar.
The next weekend, we came back for a show at the beautiful Plantation House and at the Fireflies Music Festival. Musicians were Maarten Visser on saxophones, Keith Peters on electric bass, Robbert van Hulzen on drums, and at Fireflies we were be joined by guitarist Amit Heri.
A few days ago I had an enjoyable hour of chatting and playing on Yugi Sethu’s talkshow, in the company of friend & multi-talented singer Yogeswaran Manickam, also known as Yoga. The show is scheduled to be broadcast next Saturday, 21 January, and will be available online too. We talked about music, about India, about motorcycles, and of course about how all those things and more combine in my upcoming trip. We also discussed the origins of the name Elephant Songs and what that phrase means to me.
When afterwards I switched my phone back on, I found an urgent message: if I’d be interested in a recording session the next day? Yes please thank you very much – and then of course the question what to do there forced itself on me. I had’t planned to start the Elephant Songs adventure till mid Feb, but I guess this trip will be all about grabbing opportunities when it presents themselves, and there’s already a few more exciting things coming up before riding to Bangalore to play at the Fireflies festival on 19 February as my first post-Chennai stop. Call it an extended prologue.
On the evening (night, on the Indian schedule) of Friday 13 January, Maarten and yours truly took drums and saxophones to the beautiful VGP Studios on Mount Road, where we met Yoga and organiser Jai Shankar Iyer and studio magician Greg Simmons with his team of eager Australian sound engineers. The spaces looked like bank safes, with big heavy doors. The recording room doubled as home to a number of unmatching parts of filmsets and whatever was hidden beneath its wonderful red carpet redefined the term “sprung floor”.
I’d called Yoga after the talkshow, and he agreed to join the evening. I knew a few of the things he does, but also realised there is a lot I don’t know about him and I had no idea how he would approach this session. I’ve been playing with Maarten since he invited me to join oto.3 on my last visit to India, about a year ago, working with him in that group and in other combinations, including a weekly duo gig at a mediterranean restaurant near the Harley showroom. I don’t think Maarten and Yoga ever played together, though they’ve know each other for a long time and have both often worked with Paul Jacob. The latter, in an article in The Hindu, said something that very well describes part of my motivation for Elephant Songs: “What we create together is far more powerful than what I or any single musician can achieve on his own. We live in dark, difficult times of ethnic violence and power struggles. Music can do much to educate us, bring people together, make us feel our common humanity.”
We took our places in three corners of the studio, facing each other, and after Greg finished setting up the mics, the first elephant songs were recorded.
Maarten brought a graphic score that he titled rolmops: with dots, lines, and squiggles he instructed us how to play our ways through a somewhat defined structure. We did three takes, getting more and more into it; Shane Choi filmed the largest part of the third take with his phone.
Yoga came with a beautiful lullaby that started with soft call and response phrases and then went into a gently rocking waltz. It was great to feel how we all played comfortably, in our own ways with our own instruments and backgrounds, at the same time listening to one another and creating music together.
I’d worked all day on an idea that ended up being called date shake, in honour of the fantastically refreshing frozen-milk-drink they serve in the juice parlours on Triplicane High Road.
When looking for information on Armenian music a few days ago, I’d learnt about their tetrachord system (or understood the information that way, I will never hold Wikipedia responsible for my haphazard interpretations). The system seemed to be about the intervals between the first four notes of a major scale, which are repeated from the fifth note up. Then treat that top half as the bottom half of a new scale, and you’ve modulated a fifth up. Playing with this I constructed a piece that keeps jumping around different major scales, in constant ambiguity as to whether the four notes start or end on the tonic.
In the studio, it turned out that elaborate structures and large collections of notes don’t necessarily lead to enjoyable listening. We ended up playing only the first two sections of my piece, the ones that consisted of an idea, an instruction, rather than a detailed score. Yoga’s melody had worked very well, because he just sang it and Maarten and I joined in. I, on the other hand, couldn’t sing my melody very well (having constructed it only hours ago). A good lesson: next time I’ll bring stuff I know well, that I can explain well, and that I have a clear idea for. Take it from there, make it our own once we get the basic thing. The project is called Elephant Songs after all, so let’s bring songs indeed. Also Maarten’s more workshop-like approach had worked well, that’s also a way to treat (part of) a session.
However, despite the insecurities originating with the feeling I wasn’t prepared well enough, I am very happy with this session. A good start to an intriguing project, with great musicians in a beautiful space. I’ll try and make this chapter complete by organising a show that will also launch the tour, updates will follow. Then the next stop: Bangalore! Two or three shows in the second weekend of Feb, including the B-Flat on Friday 10, and then Fireflies on 19. To be continued!
The hill crossing on the day I left Bangalore had to wait till after lunch – but then, so did most everything on that day. After spending many hours waiting for a meeting that never happened and accepting further delays caused by multiple half-decent but oh so welcome espressos (espressi?) in the very place where I first was introduced to non-decoction black coffee in India many years ago, I set out to find the highway. Now I now I don’t have a very strong sense of direction, but if this is supposed to be the fastest and smoothest way to Madras, don’t you think they could signpost it a bit better?
When I eventually found the highway, my stomach told me it was lunch time, so I pulled into the parking lot of what turned out to be a non-veg restaurant mainly catering to people imbibing vast quantities of cheap booze. You’ve got to give it to the non-vegetarians though, the food was excellent, tasty and spicy.
After lunch and the hills that followed, I rode into fields of green coconut plantations in neat rows and other vegetation with rocky hills rising out the the rolling landscape here and there. Sometimes the hills turned into mountains – higher, bigger, less green and more rocky.
I slowly realised I’d never make it to Chennai, and then also gave up on Vellore. Just before dark I found a stuffy room in a friendly hotel in the busy little town of Ambur. The bike found a place to stay for the night in the guarded parking lot next door and I went for a walk while the powercut left the room in the dark. I found a dosa place that looked good, but felt like walking a little more. Food on my mind, I was trying to rembember where I had my first dosa, not more than a few days ago. I’d missed those sourdough lentil-rice pancakes, very happy to be back in their native lands. Thinking about local dishes, I realised that I hadn’t had pav bhaji anywhere in Maharashtra – the red stew eaten with white buns drenched in clarified butter. Not that I really minded, my relationship with the stuff has always been somewhat ambiguous, but when the sweets shop I entered for juice or tea proudly announced to have the Marathi junkfood on the menu, I didn’t resist. I asked the cook to put cheese on the sandwich I also ordered. He looked hurt and confused, was silent for a second, and said no, it has butter and chutney. The food was mediocre and when I washed my hands afterwards, a gigantic cockroach didn’t even try to hide in the woodwork around the mirror. I did not stay for tea.
After a good night’s sleep, I was on the road early. A breakfast of deep fried puris kept me going till I reached the confusing route into Chennai, amusing myself with the signs along the way that were intended to inspire caution. There is someone at a desk somewhere who makes these things up. One day, I might apply for that job. “Fast drive could be last drive” may not be too creative, but how about “Death is natural, you don’t cause it”?
After the confusion of the Poonamallee High Road (mainly caused by my wondering if I was on it or not), I quickly found Triplicane and parked my bike in the courtyard of my home in Madras, hotel Broadlands. The testride from Kathmandu to South India, some 3,500 kilometres, has been a great pleasure and I’m looking forward to got on to the road again in four or five months. But first, let’s find out what a musician’s life in Chennai is like.
Had had a great day and a half at the Shisha Café in Pune, playing a good show with saxophonist Maarten Visser and bass player Mishko M’ba and hanging and, not to be forgotten, eating lots of fantastic food washed down with mint cocktails and dhoog, a salty Iranian lassi with mint (anyone have a recipe for that?). During a few great days in Pune including , Mishko asked me if I really was going to give up now, as I was planning to take a train from Pune to Chennai to save some time. Turned out of course I wasn’t – no train was found and I didn’t try too hard as completing the whole trip on my own two wheels was a very attractive idea anyway.
So on Sunday morning, 20 November, after another day’s break with Pierluca and family at their house on the beautifully quiet compound of the international school where he works, I rode out onto the NH4, the highway between Pune and Bangalore.
Beautiful hills around Pune. Not for the first time I was reminded of Arizona in the USA. Red sandy rocks, dry, the hills abruptly sticking out of the plains. Around 60 kilometres before Satara, the speedometer gave up again, and in combination with the horn that had now completetly stopped working, this was enough reason to pull over at a garage. There was nothing they could do about the speedo, but my broken horn was replaced with a nice loud one. The broken horn had imitated a bad pop song: jumped up half a tone at a crucial moment. And, like we know from the bad pop songs, that means the end is near. Can’t say I wasn’t warned.
Feeling good, I rode on. Confident. Around Kolhapur, the landscape changed – the hills no longer dominated or rather formed the landscape, but interrupted it, and the plains out of which they jumped got more and more green. Sugarcane is a favourite, lots of fields with the high waving reed. Alternated with empty patches, explained by the numerous ox carts and tractor pulled trailers full of the stuff. Got stuck behind a lorry for a while because the guy in the passenger seat tried to pull a piece of sugarcane off a trailer they were overtaking. Laughing and pulling, he gave it a fanatical try, until his driver got fed up.
Riding into Karnataka, things kept getting greener. I got the idea it’s essentially still very dry, but I crossed a number of rivers (so wide…) and it seemed they’ve got a good irrigation scheme going. The road was shiny and black, and the traffic not too dense, so in general it was pleasant riding. Still, there’s the occasional taste-of-shock moment, for instance when two boys on a motorcycle crossed the road. I figured they saw me, and would either speed up or slow down. He didn’t do anything, so I had to hit the brakes to avoid slamming into them. A litte while later, a similar incident had a less fortunate ending, though I was not involved. For some mysterious reason a dog all of a sudden took off crossing the road at high speed and miraculously reached the divider in the middle of the road undamaged, only to run straight under the wheels of an oncoming lorry on the other side. I couldn’t watch too focusedly as I had to stay aware of the traffic around me, but the last thing I saw was the dog on his back, motionless. Hope something essential broke quickly, making the whole affair fast and painless – though that may be too optimistic. In general though, there’s a lot less roadkill than earlier, probably because the traffic is so much denser.
I’d ambitiously set my goal for Hubli, with Belgaum as an alternative. Naturally I ended up in Belgaum, in the charming bus station and market area. Found a tiny room in the Relax Hotel (picked for the name, of course) and left the bike at the guarded bus station parking.
Had a stroll around, and popped in to one of the little barber’s shops for a shave. I love that feeling of just sitting back and surrendering. Half done, the electricity went off. Strong hands massaging oil into my scalp by candle light. The gobi manchurian I had afterwards was bright red and fried to the point of burning. Exactly as it should be. At the market, some vendor I asked for cigarette paper wanted to sell me lots of jam and soy sauce and tomato sauce. Very cheap price sir, I needed it for myself, for my family, for all my friends. Didn’t matter I told him I’m travelling with as little luggage as possible – and if he’d see the amount of stuff that fills my room at the moment, he’d rightfully argue I’m not doing a very good job at that anyway.
It seems I’ve gotten into the habit of starting the day with crossing some hill range – first thing on the programme the next day again. Beautiful, as usual. After the hills though, things became a little too northern French – just fields and fields and fields, flat and boring. Sometimes industry. Sugarcane, later a crop I didn’t recognise – very dead looking with big white flowers. Till I realised they weren’t flowers, but fluffy white balls – cotton! My assumption supported by the room that I walked in to looking for the bathroom (pinky) in which, Joseph-Beuys-like, a whole wall was covered in the white balls.
The hills were reminiscent of Hampi – large boulders, looking like glacier deposits and making me wonder again if there’s any ice age history here. Something to find out. The fog gets a bit much at times – if not caused by industry or exhaust fumes, it’s because people are burning stuff on the side of the road. Any rubbish they can find, no matter what substance. They talk about living in big cities being an attack on the lungs, but try riding down an Indian highway for a few days…
After the turn-off to Panaji, Goa, the road became two lanes – apparently I lost the highway and stayed on the parallel road for a while. That was fine too, I seem not too worried about the traffic anymore. Was the road to Goa tempting? Not really, I’m looking forward to a few days of relaxation but not as a break. I didn’t come here for a holiday, I’d rather take it easy in Chennai for a bit while preparing things and start meeting people, as it will all take some time to pick up anyway.
Apart from two very friendly Bangaloreans who whizzed by a Bullets, I saw further proof of the strength of these machines when I encountered a small pick-up truck towed by a 500 cc Enfield bike.
I met more Bullets, all on their way back from a big Enfield rally in Goa. They rode at speeds I wouldn’t dream of – I’m still too uncomfortable with the traffic or too worried about the bike, though theirs might have been newer and / or stonger models too.
Speaking of traffic, I’m starting to understand the crossers: they often do see me, but are simply calculate their speed according to how fast they see me coming. Still, I’ll keep slowing down, just in case they didn’t see me – not too rare either.
Eighty kilometres before Bangalore, darkness fell. What to do? Lost precious minutes of daylight trying to make sense of the contradictory instructions to find a lodge in or around Tumkur – eventually I seemed to have to go back on the highway, in the direction I came from. No thanks, so I carried on direction Bangalore, only to see, within minutes, a lodge on the right hand side – next to the fly-over I was on. Impossible to get there. Carried on in the darkness, having the usual blinding trouble with highbeams of oncoming traffic. They make it impossible to see what’s coming, to recognise if it’s a truck, a rickshaw, a small car – consequently, I can’t guess its speed. When yet another couple of small cars cut in trying to overtake each other while overtaking a truck that was in the right lane I relaxed: just let them do what they do, crazy or not, and stay out of their way. Then realised that only minutes before I’d forced myself in between a bus and a lorry that were overtaking a slower lorry – what’s the real difference?
Then, oh joy and relief, after the toll booth: street lights! All the way to Bangalore. Rode onto a fly-over and only when I entered it I saw the sign that two-wheelers can’t use it. A lucky mistake: in my elevated state, I flew over the ant hill below. I wasn’t too worried as there were a few more bikes, including one being pushed – against the direction of traffic. Traffic was jammed till we passed a small truck with a smashed cabin turned in our direction – another ghost rider or a high impact collision?
It felt just like Bombay, coming off the fly-over into motionless traffic, but it soon opened up and I was in Malleshwaram in a few kilometres. Didn’t find a place to stay there, so I rode on to my trusted Shiva Ganga in the weaver’s and tailor’s area Balepet, only losing my way once. Unloaded the bike and went to Sheethal’s to shake the boss’s hand and have a great masala dosa and kesari bath, washed down with a wonderfully strong cup of tea, South Indian style.